Can HBOs Watchmen Rescue a Forgotten Tulsa Neighborhood?

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Tulsa Historical Society and Museum; HBO

This fall, millions watched riveted as American planes dropped bombs on a prosperous, black community in Oklahoma, and a white mob fired upon unarmed citizens. Businesses and homes exploded as men, women, and children fled, some engulfed in flames. Countless people lay dead in the streets. And all of that was in the opening sequence of HBOs just-wrapped, superhero hit Watchmen.

But while the seriesa continuation of the iconic and beloved 33-year-old graphic novelwas full of bizarre sci-fi moments involving teleportation, clones, and space squids, every brutal detail of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was all too true.

1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, as depicted on HBOs Watchmen


Watchmen shed a light on this dark and largely forgotten moment in American history, the annihilation of Tulsas Greenwood neighborhood, commonly known as Black Wall Street. At its height, it was one of the countrys most prosperous African American communities.

Despite the odds, Greenwood was rebuilt after the massacreonly to be ravaged again by the forces of urban renewal and the changing times. Now local leaders are hoping that the mass exposure from the show, along with a new history center, are enough to save Greenwood once again.

And this weeks discovery of two mass graves where victims of the massacre may have been buried thrust the community back into the spotlight.

The story of Greenwood is about resiliency, says Freeman Culver, president and CEO of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. Maybe Watchmen can bring some more light on whats going on and bring some more resources to the area.

Photo from Tulsa Historical Society showing African Americans being led to the Convention Hall during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot/Massacre.

Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

Today, a highway cuts through the area, and most of the businesses are gone. The stately, brick mansions, once owned by black bankers and lawyers, have been razed to make way for a university campus. And while black families still live in some of the surviving, modest, one- and two-story, brick and wood homes with porches out front scattered throughout the area, only one block of historic Greenwood remains. The boundaries of the rest of the roughly three dozen blocks have shifted and now bleed into downtown, University Park, and North Tulsa.

Greenwood today is just a shell of its former self, says Kavin Ross, a local historian and a freelance writer and photographer at the Greenwood Tribune. During its heyday, before and after the massacre, there were businesses and homes all along the corridor. Im saddened that its not like it was. The businesses are no longer there. We have boarded-up houses.

Its almost like somebody came in and destroyed it once again.

Median home list prices in the ZIP code that includes historic Greenwood were $399,900 as of Nov. 1, according to data. But that ZIP also includes swaths of pricey downtown. The median list price in the ZIP just above it, which includes the top portion of the community as well as much less well-off North Tulsa, were much lower, at a median $159,000. (Citywide, Tulsas median home price was $264,000.)

In the southern portion of Greenwood, near downtown, new apartment and condo buildings are going up, luring recent college grads and young professionals. Businesses are moving in. The new, six-story headquarters for Vast Bank is almost completed, a coup for the community. But the northern swath is a mix of older homes in need of repairs, recently remodeled abodes, and scattered new construction.

Locals are hopeful that the exposure from Watchmenand the construction of the 7,000-square-foot, new history center, Greenwood Rising: The Legacy of Black Wall Street, breaking ground next monthcan pull off a victory worthy of a superhero. The center is slated to open in 2021, 100 years after the massacre. As part of the $26 million project, the existing Greenwood Cultural Center will also undergo a renovation on the same campus, and a historic walking path will be created to reconnect the old district.

We hope businesses will return and make this a thriving, entrepreneurial, African American community again, says Phil Armstrong, project director of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. The commission is overseeing the project.

Black Wall Street memorial outside the Greenwood Cultural Center

Flickr CC

The riseand devastating fallof Americas Black Wall Street

Greenwood got its start at the turn of the 20th century. It was an appealing destination for African Americans who were eager to own their own land and escape the Deep South. But in an ironic twist, Greenwoods success was largely due to the racist Jim Crow laws, which cut off the black community from its white neighbors.

Since segregation prohibited blacks from shopping or dining in the white part of town, they were forced to create their own establishments. So they didand they prospered. Greenwood was so successful it became a model for other black communities around the country, says historianShirley Nero. Between 8,000 and 10,000 people called Greenwood home.

Greenwood, winter 1918

Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

In the early 1920s, there were about 20 restaurants, shops, hotels, movie theaters, and at least 30 grocery stores in the roughly 36 blocks constituting Greenwood, according to the Washington Post. There was also a hospital, good schools, and two black-owned newspapers. The most affluent citizens lived in multilevel brick mansions with red-orange clay tile roofs just outside the commercial hub along Detroit Avenue.

There were doctors, lawyers, bankers, says Lynda Ozan, Oklahomas deputy historic preservation officer. The larger homes were built surrounding the commercial area, where the more blue-collar, one- and two-story, wood or brick homes with front porches were farther out.

Their success didnt go unnoticed in the white community. Race riots, lynchings, and massacres were erupting around the country. All it needed was a spark. In Tulsa, it was provided by a white woman who falsely accused a young black man of rape. Tensions between the two communities heightened after he was arrested. And on June 1, 1921, the massacre began. The governor declared martial law.

The HBO show surprisingly and eerily very accurately depicts the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, says the commissions Armstrong. Hes thanked the producers for the international attention theyve brought to Tulsas darkest history. This really did happen on American soil. It was devastating.

Within 24 hours, Black Wall Street was no more. Its not known how many people perished, because many were buried in mass graves. Estimates range between 100 and 300 victims. The only thing left standing were two of the brick walls of the New Vernon AME Church, says Armstrong. No one was ever charged in the murders.

Greenwood after the massacre

Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

Losses were estimated at anywhere from $1.5 million to $27 million. With inflation that would be between $19.4 million and $374 million today.

Insurance companies blamed the annihilation on riots, a classification that meant they werent on the hook to pay out a dime. White city officials passed local ordinances designed to make it too expensive for residents to rebuild their homes and businesses.

But the community persevered. Lawyers contested the ordinances, taking their case all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Courtand won. Within a year, nearly all of the homes had been rebuilt and the community was once again beginning to thrive. It reached its peak two decades later, in the mid-1940s.

To this day, the families and businesses could never receive payment for their losses. They could not file claims, says Armstrong. The fact that these black citizens were able to rebuild, and rebuild bigger and better than it was before, is a story of the enduring human spirit and the spirit of resilience.

Rebuilt Greenwood in 1925

Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

Greenwood decimated a second time in the name of progress

That resilience couldnt save the neighborhood from the mid-1960s: the end of Jim Crow and the acceleration of urban renewal. The forces at work were beyond the powers of even Dr. Manhattan.

With segregation outlawed, blacks were finally free to spend their money in the white community that had been off-limits to them. And they did, withdrawing their support from the black-owned businesses in Greenwood.

Around the same time, the city officials decided to put a highway straight through the middle of the neighborhood. All over the nation, urban renewal projects, often called urban removal, were breaking up lower-income, minority communities, which didnt have the political and financial means to fight. Tulsa was no different.

Construction on Interstate Highway 244 split Greenwood in half.

The final nail in the coffin was likely the local children who went off to collegeand became doctors, lawyers, and bankers elsewhere. With no one to pass on the family businesses, many closed.

The real tragedy is the fact the businesses and land owned by African Americans is minuscule in relation to what it was, says Oklahoma state Sen. Kevin Matthews. He also chairs the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission. What happened is a shame.

Greenwoods third act?

Greenwood today

Greenwood Chamber of Commerce

The Greenwood of today doesnt bear much resemblance to the Black Wall Street of yesteryear. Just two buildings, both of which were rebuilt after the massacre, remain of Greenwood today. They house the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce and a few black-owned businesses on a half-block of North Greenwood Avenue.

As soon as you cross the railroad tracks now from downtown into historic Greenwood, you come into a lot of new developments, says the commissions Armstrong. Theres the [minor-league] Tulsa Drillers baseball stadium, which started a lot of development. Theres an arts district thats popped up. Theres a slew of eateries. Theres a lot of small businesses.

Oneok Field, home of the Tulsa Drillers

Wikipedia CC

New apartment and condo buildings have sprung up along with office buildings, eateries, and other businesses.

The Tulsa branches of two college campuses, Oklahoma State University and historically black Langston University, now occupy swaths of the neighborhood. The state university now sits where many of the neighborhoods mansions once stood.

Middle-class, wood and brick one- and two-story homes still dot the community. But the farther north folks go, the worse off the neighborhood becomes as it blends into poorer North Tulsa. The latter area is known for its high crime rates, dearth of grocery stores, and dollar stores and fast-food chains.

Without a team of real-life superheroes to save the day, Greenwood leaders and residents are relying on the success of the new centerand the buzz created by Watchmento breathe new life into Black Wall Street.

The biggest impact [of Watchmen] is bringing attention to Tulsa and what happened here, says Matthews, the state senator. People are now looking into that story and learning more about it.

The commissions Armstrong would agree.

[We want people] to come to Greenwood and learn about this rich history and be a catalyst for tourism and economic development for the district, says Armstrong. We want African Americans and minorities to feel empowered to reinvigorate the entrepreneurial spirit of Greenwood.

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